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Good as Gould? Ask a Chimp

Photo credit: Rishi Ragunathan, via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Science After Babel, the latest book from mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski. This article is adapted from Chapter 13.

Among other things, medieval thinkers believed that human beings were unique in ways that were absolute and inviolable. This doctrine many modern biologists have emphatically rejected. “The Western world,” Stephen Jay Gould remarks, “has yet to make its peace with Darwin.”1 The great impediment to this reconciliation, he goes on to add in his mad way (the sense strong that he is urging a difficult truth on a dogmatic public), “lies in our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness.” He continues:

Chimps and gorillas have long been the battleground of our search of uniqueness; for if we could establish an unambiguous distinction — of kind, rather than degree — between ourselves and our closest relatives, we might gain the justification long sought for our cosmic arrogance. The battle shifted long ago from a simple debate about evolution: educated people now accept the evolutionary continuity between human and apes. But we are so tied to our philosophical and religious heritage that we still seek a criterion for a strict division between our abilities and those of chimpanzees.2

Now I quote all this not merely because Gould [held] a chair at Harvard and I do not, although this made the target all the more tempting, but because Gould represents a charming intelligence corrupted by a shallow system of belief.

No distinction in kind rather than degree between ourselves and the chimps? No distinction? Seriously, folks? Here is a simple operational test: The chimpanzees invariably are the ones behind the bars of their cages. There they sit, solemnly munching bananas, searching for lice, aimlessly loping around, baring their gums, waiting for the experiments to begin. No distinction? Chimpanzees cannot read or write; they do not paint, or compose music, or do mathematics; they form no real communities, only loose-knit wandering tribes; they do not dine and cannot cook; there is no record anywhere of their achievements; beyond the superficial, they show little curiosity; they are born, they live, they suffer, and they die.

No Distinction? 

No species in the animal world organizes itself in the complex, dense, difficult fashion that is typical of human societies. There is no such thing as animal culture; animals do not compromise and cannot count; there is not a trace in the animal world of virtually any of the powerful and poorly understood powers and properties of the human mind; in all of history, no animal has stood staring at the night sky in baffled and respectful amazement. The chimpanzees are static creatures, solemnly poking for grubs with their sticks, inspecting one another for fleas. No doubt, they are peaceable enough if fed, and looking into their warm brown eyes one can see the signs of a universal biological shriek (a nice maneuver that involves hearing what one sees), but what of it?

One may insist, of course, that all this represents a difference merely of degree. Very well. Only a difference of degree separates man from the Canadian goose. Individuals of both species are capable of entering the air unaided and landing some distance from where they started.


  1. Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977), 26.
  2. Gould, Ever Since Darwin, 27

David Berlinski

Writer, Thinker, Raconteur, and Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
David Berlinski received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and was later a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Dr. Berlinski has authored works on systems analysis, differential topology, theoretical biology, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics, as well as three novels. He has also taught philosophy, mathematics and English at such universities as Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York and the Universite de Paris. In addition, he has held research fellowships at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) in France.



apesbananasbiologycagesCanadian gooseCharles DarwinchimpanzeescookingcuriosityevolutionHarvard Universityhuman exceptionalismhuman mindhumanslicemusicStephen Jay GouldWestern culture